THIS PAST OCTOBER, 50 local business leaders, urban planners, and politicians—including state representatives and Mayor Sam Adams—spent four days in Detroit to see what Portland could learn from the faded Rust Belt city. The leaders reconvened at a public symposium Thursday, December 9, to discuss their findings and answer a disturbing question: whether Portland might one day find itself on the same road as Detroit. But Portland State University Urban Planning and Studies Professor Greg Schrock (a Midwest transplant himself) explains that Motown's lessons are subtler: Exploring Detroit, he says, brings Portland's own inequities to light.
MERCURY: Why did you all choose Detroit? Was the goal of the trip to see how Portland could avoid a similar fate?
GREG SCHROCK: The ostensible goal of the trip was what are the lessons that Portland can learn from Detroit. I had a harder time with that. I think the circumstances are very different in many, many ways. There's this concern that Portland is fading, that there's a sense of complacency here about Portland's economic status and if we're not careful, we're going to end up as a green Detroit.
What parallels did you see between Portland and Detroit?
They both have issues of economic vitality but in a very different way. The big challenge from a jobs standpoint in Detroit was getting people to want to live there. Detroit, like a lot of Midwestern places, suffers from brain drain. Portland almost has the opposite problem. The challenge here is how does the Portland region capitalize on the talent pool it has here?
In Portland there's a tendency to overlook some of the challenges of segregation and inequality that exist here, in part because when you look around at the inner neighborhoods they tend to be very nice. In reality, a lot of the challenges of poverty and inequality tend to be out on the periphery—North Portland, East Portland, or Gresham. In Detroit, the moment you cross Eight Mile Road, which is the iconic border of Detroit and the suburbs, the physical development changes, the demographics change, it's just black and white, literally. Here, because the city itself is viewed as being vital, there's kind of a self-image of progressiveness, that we're attentive to these issues. But in reality, no one's really thinking about East Portland when we're thinking about Portland. It's an entirely different world. You can't go to Detroit and not think about the stark inequities that exist in that place. Here it's easy to forget about.
What did you see contributing to those inequities?
Part of it is the relationship between cities and suburbs. The city of Detroit really became irrelevant to the region in many ways because the auto industry had really suburbanized over the years. Portland's still a long way from that, in terms of the strength of the downtown and the overall vitality of the city. But the economic strength of Washington County, for example, continues to grow because of the focus of trying to bring jobs here and to do so in places that may be the cheapest. Foremost in Detroit's strategic challenge is trying to make the city something that suburban leaders care about.
So do you see Portland winding up like Detroit in 50 years?
I'm skeptical of that. Detroit was very much a single-industry town, and you had a very insular culture within their corporate community that was resistant to change, and it crowded out other industries from starting there. Here you don't really have the dominance of any one industry, and you have the migration of a lot of people from a lot of different places that leads to an open environment economically and politically. As much as the business community has concerns about the economic situation here, I don't think the comparison to Detroit is an appropriate one for a lot of reasons. And I don't think that abandoning the kind of democratic culture we have in Portland is necessary.